I’m used to it by now honestly, but I don’t know if being used to something necessarily makes it OK or less hurtful.
Since I was a kid, everywhere I’ve traveled, I experience the same puzzled looks from folks as they try to mentally fit me in some box. “Where are you from?” they would ask me, “You’ve got to be some sort of Asian.”
Or upon hearing that I was mixed race they would then stare harder at my features, as if my nose and freckles would somehow hand them a map and say “here” with a pointed finger.
When I was a kid it didn’t bother me as much as it bothers me now. Mostly because the conversation goes this way:
“You’re so racially ambiguous. What ARE you?”
“I’m mixed, but I identify most with my Native Lakota and Mohawk side.”
*Shocked face* “But you don’t LOOK Native American!”
And there it is. I don’t look how they expect. They expected me to look like the old tin photos in their school history books, with otter skins in my hair and a bone beaded chest plate. They expected my skin to be darker. They expected me to look like the cartoon versions of “Native Americans” they grew up seeing in Peter Pan, or on that commercial with the crying “Native Chief” when someone litters on the road. (He was played by an Italian actor by the way.) The questions that ALWAYS follows the above conversation is:
“How MUCH Native are you?”
Can we just take a second to deconstruct that question for a moment? Blood quantum laws were established by the US Government in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization act. The short version goes like this: The US government FORCED tribes to quantify their “Indian Blood”, and required them to choose an amount that they would no longer recognize as being Native or a part of their tribe. When there is no one left to claim the land, the US government will take it. The US Government just bides their time until no one is left who qualifies. So when people ask me how MUCH native I am, they’re asking me to follow a practice formed by colonization that promotes cultural genocide.
So I respond with this: “I am a 100% culturally practicing Lakota and Mohawk woman.”
Blood quantum and tribal registration laws are so damaging that I am not even allowed to officially claim my tribes.
Currently, my grandfather’s application for tribal membership must be accepted, then my mother’s, then mine; and that only applies to tribes where they allow direct lineage membership. Some tribes won’t even allow that. My grandfather was not raised by his parents, and the attitude for so long was to pass for being white as much as you could.
However, my grandparents home is FILLED with culture. Every wall has evidence of how much his culture means to him. It’s hard to find that when your identity was taken from you for so long, and kept from you by the government. So my brother and I have taken it upon ourselves to reclaim our family. To take our Kahnawá ke Mohawk Rice family line, and our Oglala Lakota Tubbs family line, and live it fully for our grandfather.
Traveling While Native
In the Bay Area of California, I wouldn’t get this question of what race I was as much because there are SO many races n this area that people either don’t have time to ask or care. Or they assume I’m Mexican. It wasn’t until I traveled to areas where the demographic was less diverse that people started to feel unsettled that they couldn’t “place” me.
When my younger brother, Andrew, traveled to the Netherlands with his wife, people assumed he was Turkish. Last week he went to Denver and the TSA agent pulled him aside for an extra screening and asked if he has ever been a part of a violent politically motivated militant group. His reply was, “Does the Marines count?”
The lady was shocked, “Oh no, that’s not what I meant sir..uh…thanks for your service?”
By the way, did you know that it is recognized historically that Native Americans have the highest record of Marine Corps service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups, according to the DoD. And that WWI and WWII would not have been won without the help of Native code talkers sending and receiving messages using a code they developed that was nearly impossible to decipher.
My brother works out on the Shoshone Rez, so people don’t question his identity as much until he comes into town. Then he gets “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” When he goes to the diner to get coffee, he’s placed in the corner of the restaurant so as not to scare the other customers, even though he’s the sweetest man I’ve ever met (until he hears someone hurt his sister, mama or wife).
So here are 8 Tips For Traveling On Native Lands And Interacting With Native People
1. Don’t act shocked when you find out someone is Native American, instead channel your initial disbelief into feelings of curiosity.
2. DON’T ask someone how MUCH Native they are. If the conversation moves in such a way, you MAY be able to ask if someone is culturally practicing. This implies you know how important cultural ties are to Native peoples.
3. Be aware that some “Full” blooded natives are not culturally practicing or contributing anything to their communities, hence why blood quantum laws are just dumb.
4. I was born and raised in Sunnyvale California, a city that was built on stolen Muwekma Ohlone land. So whenever I am speaking in a public space, I take the time as a Lakota and Mohawk woman to address that I am not speaking on my own land. This is something other Americans can do as well. Wherever you are traveling to, or when speaking publicly in a space, acknowledge who’s land it is you are using. This is a way to honor the intentions of your travels, respectfully existing with the land and not colonizing.
5. Use every opportunity in your work space to bring attention to and highlight the local tribe, even if your work is not in relation to tribal affairs. It would be a respectful introduction to every occasion, no matter where you are, and honestly it would shock the Natives who are in that space with you in the best way.
6. As a writer for powwows.com there are a LOT of questions I have when I arrive to cover a powwow, potlatch, ceremony or honoring. I am first, always conscious of the residual trauma each tribe feels when outsiders come.
7. At a pow-wow I don’t speak a great deal other than to traditionally introduce myself, and then I prepare to listen and to observe.
8. Remember, each tribe has it’s own way of doing things, and if I have a question I always introduce my curiosity with my reasoning, “Could you please help educate me on something? I don’t want to offend.” Most will be glad you asked, but reserve those questions for after you’ve taken time to observe.
And always remember that if you travel in tribal areas, you’ll notice that not only do we have different cultural practices and stories, but we look different, too. There is no ONE way to look Native, and the more Native land you travel, the more clear that will be. From skin tones to facial structures, height to hair, we are all different in looks and in land, whether we are culturally practicing or Native only in ancestry, we are still here.